Thursday, April 06, 2006

"Reasonable" Amounts of Overtime

Got a call yesterday from an artist on a feature with a tight deadline. He's worried about management piling on a lot of extra hours seven days a week... I told him it's a real possibility, since hard-and-fast deadlines (as in "We've got a thousand product and advertising tie-ins with this movie and it's just GOT to come out on November 10...") tend to make management grind everyone into the dirt with insane hours. And I told him I had seen it happen before. With "Aladdin." With "Lion King." Artists on those pictures were working six and seven-day weeks, ten and twelve-hour days. Clean-up artists (these were the hand-drawn days, remember) told me that their wrists were blowing out, that they never saw their kids, that their wives were getting suicidal from neglect. One artist said she was hanging it up, because while she was making a lot of money, she spent a lot of money having people clean the house she seldom saw and wash the clothes she didn't have time to clean herself. Most of the Disney features from the early nineties had grueling schedules, but I related the worst I'd seen. The worst was a picture entitled "Space Jam," the combination live-action/animated feature that starred Michael Jordan. On that one, Warners had two L.A. crews, a Tornto staff, and overseas contractors. The Los Angeles crews -- the ones I knew about -- worked seven days a week, ten and more hours per day for month after month. I could walk in any time of the day or night, any day of the week, and there they would all be, hunched over their light boards or computer screens. Clean-up artist Craig Littel- Herrick bragged to me about how on several occasions he kept at it for twenty-two hours straight, passed out under his desk and then bobbed up for more. Now here's where the word "reasonable" comes into play. Under federal and state labor regs, "reasonable" (as in "the employer has the right to assign reasonable amounts of overtime") generally means the amount of labor an employee can do without making herself (or himself) sick. Exactly how much work is "reasonable" will vary from person to person. An artist who is twenty and in vigorous good health will be able to do more hours than, say, a sixty-year-old suffering from emphysema and chronic arthritis. But as I've watched animation staffs work long hours -- particularly on features -- I've realized that there's a whole other way to look at "reasonable." And it's not from the perspective of an employee's health, but from the efficiency of dollars spent. Because what happens as hours increase and expensive overtime kicks in is, the amount of usable work diminishes. For when work enters its fifteenth or twentieth straight day, productivity falls right off a cliff. It's not that employees are consciously fluffing off, it's that they are mentally and physically unable to push themselves at anywhere near the pace at which they work when fresh. What that means is, the employer pays double-time to have its employees stare blankly at a lightboard or computer screen as they struggle to remember what planet they're on. For a long time I wondered why management paid all the double-time and time-and-a-half when it got them such a paltry amount of product in return. It seemed kind of nuts, actually. But then my tiny brain figured out why I was the one being unreasonable: Management isn't going to get in trouble for over-spending corporate cash to insure that "Beauty and the Beast" or "Space Jam" or "Toy Story 2" is ready to unspool in three thousand theaters on a given summer day, but it will get itself fired real fast if it doesn't spend every last nickel for every extra minute and the precious deadline is missed. When you look at "reasonable" that way, it puts things in a different light. And explains why tall stacks of cash are sometimes handed out for small piles of work. But the artist I talked to didn't entirely buy it. A quite normal reaction, to my mind. He's the one, after all, who's going to be stuck working the long, seven-day weeks.


Anonymous said...

At least they're getting paid for their unreasonable overtime. In many shops paid overtime is merely a vapor of an idea. Of course this leads to the idea of "going guild" as a cure. Which is fine in California. Not so easy if the studio is outside of the Guild's jurisdiction (if I have my facts straight). Many folks enjoy the double gut punch of getting buried by the work and not getting any extra money for the pain. This is true especially in CG shops because the employers hide behind the law's definition of Cg artists as "computer technicians" and thus claim they are exempt from overtime status. It's fantastic business model for the studio owners: get 150% of work for only 100% of capital investment. It's very addictive and habit forming for studio owners when they get hooked on the free money their employees give them with unpaid OT. And there are a number of studios out there (in California and out) doing feature film work getting lots of free time from their staff. I wish it weren't so.

Steve Hulett said...

Ex-staffers DID sue Electronic Arts and force some changes. But it takes a lot of internal fortitude to stand up to management.

The reality is: Most folks keep their heads down and soldier on. Let us praise those stalwarts who don't take the abuse.

Anonymous said...

Hi Boys.
Unreasonable or reasonable.
I like reasonable.
I did what thay asked for, and nothing more. And that's reasonable, and then I go home to my wife and kids.
Now what's unreasonable is working late into the night and doing more hours than most are doing, now that's the wrong.
Bottom line everybody get's canned.
Excuse me while I go put another log on the fire.
Thank You.

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